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Cervical cancer risk factors

Infection of the cervix with human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common cause of cervical cancer. However, not all women with an HPV infection will develop cervical cancer.

Routine Pap testing is the best way to detect abnormal changes to the cervix before they develop into cancer. Because of this, women who do not regularly have a Pap test are at increased risk of developing the disease.

Video: What are risk factors for cervical cancer?

What are risk factors for cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer risk factors

GENERAL

  • Pregnancy: Women who have had three or more full-term pregnancies, or who had their first full-term pregnancy before age 17, are twice as likely to get cervical cancer.

GENETICS

  • Family history: Women with a sister or mother who had cervical cancer are two to three times more likely to develop cervical cancer.

LIFESTYLE

  • Sexual history: Certain types of sexual behavior are considered risk factors for cervical cancer and HPV infection. These include: sex before age 18, sex with multiple partners and sex with someone who has had multiple partners. Studies also show a link between chlamydia infection and cervical cancer.
  • Smoking: A woman who smokes doubles her risk of cervical cancer.
  • Oral contraceptive use: Women who take oral contraceptives for more than five years have an increased risk of cervical cancer, but this risk returns to normal within a few years after the pills are stopped.

OTHER CONDITIONS

  • Weakened immune system: In most people with healthy immune systems, the HPV virus clears itself from the body within 12-18 months. However, people with HIV or other health conditions or who take medications that limit the body’s ability to fight off infection have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES): Women whose mothers took DES, a drug given to some women to prevent miscarriage between 1940 and 1971, have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
  • HPV: Though HPV causes cancer, having HPV does not mean you will get cancer. The majority of women who contract HPV clear the virus or have treatment so the abnormal cells are removed. HPV is a skin infection, spread through skin-to-skin contact with a person who has the virus. Learn about the HPV vaccine to prevent HPV infections.

Additional facts about HPV:

  • There are more than 100 types of HPV, 30-40 of which are sexually transmitted.
  • Of these, at least 15 are high-risk HPV strains that can cause cervical cancer. The others cause no symptoms or genital warts.
  • Up to 80 percent of women will contract HPV in their lifetime. Men get HPV, too, but there is no test for them.
  • A healthy immune system will usually clear the HPV virus before there is a symptom, including the high-risk types of HPV.
  • Only a small percentage of women with high-risk HPV develop cervical cancer.

Understanding risk factors

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer. Not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. If you think you may be at risk, you should discuss it with your doctor.

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